The Symbian Experience

As a user and as a developer

My first go at developing on Symbian was with Symbian C++, and that wasn’t a nice experience for me, or my co-developer. Even doing simple things required one to think about low level stuff, since the whole system was designed for those really memory-constrained devices of the previous generation. Classes and methods were named arbitrarily, and the convention of adding prefixes and suffixes to the names to impart information only made it worse. The net effect was that it was hard to read and understand code, sometimes even our own code.

Around that time, I had just started learning Qt, and compared to Qt, Symbian C++ was a nightmare. While having a clean API was always a focus for Qt, it appears to me that Symbian C++ ignored it completely.

The game shifted gears when Nokia bought Trolltech in Jan 2008, and within a few months of the acquisition, started an effort to port Qt to Symbian. At that time, the first-gen iPhone was shipping, and was doing great. The second-gen iPhone launched that July, with the App Store. Later that year, the first Android phone launched. The era of touch-centric phones had begun.

Presumably, around that time, Nokia too were looking at going big on touchscreen phones. As of 2009, the Qt guys at Nokia were experimenting with QML, a new language to create fluid user-interface elements. That later evolved into Qt Quick, a UI technology that made it really easy to make touch-centric apps for the new touchscreen phones running Symbian^3. Once Qt Quick and it’s UI components became available in Symbian in mid-2011, the number of modern-looking apps on Symbian increased significantly.

Though the apps started looking nice and modern, the UI of the OS itself (Symbian^3 and Symbian Anna) was still looking dated. For example, though running on a touchscreen, they had two text buttons in the bottom taskbar, a legacy from the buttoned phones. The OS UI now supported different orientations, but when the phone orientation changed, weird things happened on the screen before the screen settled in the new orientation. Till Symbian Anna, if you wanted to type in portrait mode, you had to make do with a telephone keypad (that has 2 and ABC on the same button). Stuff like these were unacceptable at a time when iOS and Android were offering much better touch-centric user interfaces, and were made for touch from the ground-up.

The Symbian user experience did have it’s own unique pluses compared to iOS / Android. The alarm in Symbian worked even when switched off. The always-on low-power notifications screen worked brilliantly with AMOLED displays. And the power consumption was consistently frugal. But the main problem, that the user interface still looked like it was from a pre-iPhone era, remained.

Nokia fixed most of those issues with Nokia Belle, introduced in late 2011, but it was too late. And, Belle merely brought the smartphone user experience on par with the competition, didn’t significantly elevate it to a higher level. The best Symbian experience ever was on the flagship Nokia 808, and I think the UX in the 808 can just about compete with the UX in iOS/Android. And that’s forgetting about apps and ecosystem for a moment.

In my opinion, Symbian’s downfall was that it couldn’t adapt itself to a touch-centric user experience quick enough. If Nokia had been able to ship Belle two years earlier than it actually did, it would’ve atleast had a fair chance at competing with iOS and Android.

This post is based on my inputs to TechCrunch for their article on Symbian.

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